Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dorothy Height featured on Google's front page


Have you noticed Google's logo on their front page today (pictured above)? It's for the anniversary Dorothy Height's birth. Via Wikipedia:
Dorothy Irene Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010)[1]   
was an American administratoreducator, and a civil rights and women's rights activist specifically focused on the issues of African-American women, including unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness.[2] She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for forty years, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004... 
...Height was admitted to Barnard College in 1929, but upon arrival, she was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two black students per year (blogger's note: see white affirmative action in practice). She pursued studies instead at New York University, earning a degree in 1932, and a master's degree in educational psychology the following year.
In fighting for the rights of Black women and addressing the unique challenges faced by women of color, she was one of the original intersectional feminists. (Yes, I'm excited that I recently learned what intersectional feminism means, thanks in large part to Sarah Ballard and Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein.)

The art of argumentation

One of my favorite writers is David Simon, one of the creators of the TV miniseries The Wire, Treme and The Corner. He also wrote the excellent non-fiction books Homicide (which I read last year) and The Corner, which I'm working my way through now (man, it's a rough ride!). 

The Wire creator David Simon (left) with actor Andre Royo (Bubbles)
He also maintains a blog called the Audacity of Despair, which I check in on occasionally, but not frequently enough. Normally, the comments sections of most blogs and news sites are nasty swamplands filed with noxious vapors. But I actually enjoy reading the comments area of Simon's blog (as well as that of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Simon's arguments and counterarguments are sharp, concise and always on-point. I always take notes and practice his methods in my own arguments, which as an advocate for diversity and equal opportunity in astronomy, I get plenty of practice. 

One of the things I've noticed about Simon's argumentation style is that he doesn't pretend that politeness is the only acceptable way to engage in civil discourse. Politeness is a tool, to be employed when most effective or appropriate. But there are other tools at ones disposal, and plenty of times when the argument that needs to be made is not polite at all. If someone is thoughtless enough to punch me in the face, I'm not going to try and hug them. 

The art of arguing (image credit)
The over-reliance on politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. Wait, let me clarify that. The over-reliance on apparent politeness is one of the defining characteristics of discourse in astronomy. I suspect this dates back to the era when astronomy was run by British gentleman, and the tendency of the older generation of astronomers to romanticize that period of time. But as a uber-minority in monochromatic field of science living in a race-obsessed country, I have no inclination to romanticize the past. I can admire the specific accomplishments of past astronomers. But I refuse to diefy them, given that they conducted science as part of such an exclusive club. A club with minimal competition and minimal participation from others with better ideas. 

This is probably a major reason why I appear so confrontational to my peers in astronomy. The fact that I don't respect all points of view is seen as intolerance. But I see it as the result of a critical selection process. If an idea has merit, I'll respect it. If it lacks merit, then the idea deserves to be dragged out into the light and squished. If that makes the person with the idea feel bad, then go back to the drawing board and try again. Its the idea that was bad, not necessarily the person who made it. The only way we get better at critical thinking is to toss out ideas and see what sticks and what gets thrown back. I learned this in my college dorm common area and on long road trips with my college buddies. I've learned it since then in talking with my colleagues. 
"Distinguished" men of science, from Wiki commons. Leaving open the
question of from whom did these men distinguished themselves? Other
white male aristocrats? If so, that's quite the competitive talent pool!
Everyone has a right to say what's on their mind. But if one's idea is intellectually weak on its face or insulting in its reception, then there should be no expectation that it be respected. To be sure, a person's statement should be acknowledged. "I recognize that you think that horrible thought and are willing to say it aloud." But there should be no expectation whatever that a statement should be respected. "I'm sorry, but that's the most insulting thing I've heard this year. What's it like to not have to think critically before speaking?" Yet I've found many otherwise bright people in science, and in astronomy in particular, who believe otherwise. 

So it was with great pleasure and rapt attention that I read a comment thread at the end of Simon's post about the movie 12 Years a Slave---a movie that I will watch, but I know it's going to be a tough viewing given that it's one of Hollywood's few true-to-life depictions of the American institution of slavery. I hear the movie pulls no punches in depicting the fundamental American institution upon which our nation was founded, namely the state-sanctioned dehumanization of an entire group of people, and the state-sponsored system of terrorism that was used to enforce it over several centuries. 

Here's one of the commenters, a typical troll, along with his apologist buddy. Also included is Simon's expert response. Watch and learn. This is how it's done. I've added my personal comments in bold to draw parallels with how this exact pattern plays out in discussions of social issues among astronomers.

Wouldn’t it just be easier, more honest and less painful for you to just leave the U.S. and try hating it from the outside? (Note how rude this comment is. Without prompting the commenter invites the author to leave the country, with no knowledge of Simon's true, complex feelings about his country of birth. This rudeness sets the stage for all that follows.)
    It would not annoy the likes of you nearly enough for my tastes. Dissent is the most American characteristic there is, which makes your unwillingness to entertain so much as an acknowledgment of the human cost of slavery or the moral compromises inherent in our constitutional premise, well, un-American. So while there are obviously fundamental reasons for me to maintain my allegiance to this country and to continue my participation as a citizen, the fact that it grinds the asses of simplistic, binary-brained, America-right-or-wrong bumpkins such as yourself is all just bonus. (Okay, the name-calling is not such an effective tactic, IMO. But I understand when it comes to trolls. Simon does not pretend to be polite. Just Al's comment was rude and there's no reason to expect politeness in response. Simon asserts his right as a citizen to dissent and correctly notes who is actually acting un-American.)
      That was an epic take down and you nailed who this person really is, un-American! Good to have you back!
    • JUST AL
      So your real intent is to annoy? Ah, a lofty ambition indeed. For a brief second I thought perhaps that you might really believe in all that tripe.
      I get it now,..this is just your routine, your hook. Thanks for the clarification dave. (note how Just Al sidesteps his original argument (you should leave the country) and Simon's response to that "argument." He now instead picks at the meta-level of what Simon wrote. This is very standard for poor argumentation. Constantly change the focus: bob and weave and run.
        Really? That’s what you’ve got left in the tank? Embarrassing. (If Just Al had any self awareness, he would be embarrassed. But he's just a troll and I'm sure he got what he wanted: attention)
        What part of ‘bonus’ do you not understand?
      Why did you insult Just Al in your response to his posting? He asked a fair question. (in comes Brendan, the apologist who can usually be found in tow behind a troll. In his estimation asking someone to leave the country for expressing a dissenting view is a "fair question.")
      Your anger on certain topics is noted, even admired by me. But why don’t you start walking the walk instead of just talking (er, writing) the talk? You’ve taken no stands that I’m aware of — other than wait around for Jury Duty so you can nullify. Some of your television work is entertaining & noteworthy, but none of it has moved the needle toward any progress in areas you purportedly care about. Therefore, you often come across as someone who does, in fact, hate this place. Your whole “love letter from a conflicted lover” validation makes little sense. Either do something about it, or politely live your life and say “thank you” to people like us who gave you a 2nd career.
      But a 1%’er blogging about his/her anger is not inspirational.
        A fair question? Are you actually attempting to suggest that making a supposition that I hate my country merely because I criticize its policies and behavior at points isn’t an uncorroborated, unevidenced claim, embarrassing on its face? Or that then proceeding from that unevidenced allegation to suggest it would be better if I practiced such criticism after abandoning the country isn’t an ignorant and un-American attempt at ad hominem?
        Either way, Brendan, it’s charity enough for me to answer your question without insult, because your premise is insulting.
        You and Mr. Al do not seem to understand either the role of dissent in a republic, nor the boundaries of logic and rhetoric. Criticizing my country is in no way indicative of hating it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am an American. I love my country and hope for it to behave honorably and not shamefully, and for citizens to know the difference. America, right or wrong. When right, keep her right. When wrong, make her right. And an open discussion of the issues at hand is a fundamental first step in that process, for all of us.
        Much of my storytelling is predicated on a belief in that process. Much of my rhetoric as well. Numerous political “stands” have been undertaken and argued. And if engaging in the marketplace of ideas doesn’t move the needle sufficiently for your satisfaction, then no matter, you can go elsewhere to engage, act or even consider and assert for ideas and argument. But that marketplace is being serviced here. That is my vocation, and I take it seriously. If you do not, then there is no need to remain here venting, is there? Further, you are, of course, wholly ignorant of any less public and more personal ways in which I engage as a citizen, aren’t you? Yet you arrive at a forum for civic debate and complain ridiculously because I am here, engaged in civic debate. Really?
        But enough about me. Can you forgo the dumbass ad hominem and address yourself to the substance of a specific issue? Or do you find more relevance in chasing a narrow caricature of David Simon around the room? (nuff said)
        • BRENDAN
          I wasn’t responding to your original post; I was responding to your response to a reader’s response. Therefore, I don’t think I went ad hom on you. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t consider myself an expert on the original topic so I didn’t address your original post (d00d, then why are you here? To defend the trolls?). I enjoy reading your opinions on certain things, which is why I come here. But just because I visit doesn’t mean I can’t chase you around the room when you deserve it. I thought that was the intent of a blog / message board. The entire model of an online chat is built for one big ad hom fest if you insist on being so stringent about it.
          And yes, I can address ssubstance. I would love to debate you on certain topics and try to debunk some of the hypotheses you’ve hatched as a citizen economist and citizen criminologist.
          I enjoy your work (mostly) but your ideas are not above critique just because you used to write newspaper articles. There are other ways to gain knowledge in life.
          • DAVID SIMON
            Okay to all of that. (note the acknowledgement of Brendan's points. This is more polite than I'd be.)
            But if you can’t understand why one American asking another to leave this country over any political views is offensive and ignorant and deserving of my contempt, then, Brendan, I am obliged to hold your own understanding of American citizenship in extremely low regard. There are many, many moments in our history when dissent is the more American attribute and indeed the more patriotic course. (But note how he doesn't let Brendan scurry away from the key point. My take is that Simon sees the opportunity to reach a thinking individual. This is probably why he is now employing more respectful, polite language.)
            The OP’s suggestion was cretinous. It deserved all of my reply and your suggestion that it did not touched on argumentum ad hominem. (But he doesn't let the original poster off the hook for his silliness)
            • BRENDAN
              DS -
              I wrote you an apology email via this site’s Contact page. I hope your webmaster is able to get it to you. No strings attached, not pitching you anything. Just a concession/admission of guilt on my part after some reflection. (Wow!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The symmetry of Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. Bottle Cap, Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. These are the movies I keep going back to over and over as Hollywood cranks out one green-screen CGI epic after the next. Don't get me wrong, I'm way into Spike Lee and Michael Mann, but for a leisurely evening escape from reality, few do it better than Wes Anderson.

So it was with great pleasure that I watched this video on The Dish highlighting Anderson's love of symmetry in his filmmaking:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Blinded by my privilege

A large, visible knapsack.
I was recently talking with a female astronomer about diversity in astronomy. At one point, she said, "You don't know what it's like to be marginalized in your dept., to not have people listen to you and talk over you. To not give you the benefit of the doubt." Now, keep in mind that my conversation partner is white. I was a bit taken aback by her comment, and I blurted out, "You think I don't understand?! I am a Black man in America. At Harvard. In astronomy. There are of order 10 other Black people at my station in life. Until only recently I was rarely given the benefit of the doubt! I understand marginalization."

I could tell that she was, in turn, taken aback. I think that in her view I was just another man enjoying all of the associated privileges of being male in astronomy. To be sure, I do enjoy many membership benefits. I can look around the room in faculty meetings and see other men. Lot's of 'em. But it was obvious to me that she overlooked a major detail: even though I'm a man, I am far more of a minority in any astronomy gathering than she is. Not that it's a competition. I'd honestly rather lose the who's-more-of-a-minority contest. 

However, before I was able to feel too self-satisfied, I recalled a time when I did forget about my membership benefits. Indeed, I was totally ignorant of my privilege, to the detriment of people I was trying to help. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wesley! Use the Force!

Via The Dish, Star Wars meets The Princess Bride. I think you gotta be in your 30's to understand:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Let's Talk About Affirmative Action

Wanna make a room full of academics uncomfortable? Well, there are many ways to go about doing this, but among the most enjoyable and educational methods is to be the lone Black guy and say something like, "So let's talk about affirmative action!" Cue squirming and foot staring.

Well, that's basically what we at the Women in Astronomy blog were doing last week. Here's a lineup of the most recent posts:

- Joan Schmelz argues against affirmative action, with a fun plot twist!
What did I think of affirmative action? Did I think it had a place in modern academia? I answered that the physics and astronomy communities have suffered for too long under the yoke of affirmative action policies. (Not the answer you were expecting from the chair of CSWA? Please don’t stop reading here! There is a point to be made.) If policies give precedence to one gender over the other or one ethnic group over the others, then all science suffers. 
- I respond to arguments against brought forth by WiA blog readers
I certainly won't pretend that there is zero cost. There are cost-benefit considerations in any hire at any level of academia. Sometimes a department needs a radio astronomer, and this programatic consideration influences their final hiring decision. This may result in the dept. passing up a truly outstanding theorist in order to hire a radio observer. This is very unfair to theorists seeking faculty positions that year. It also means that the department didn't hire that really amazing theorist. That's a real cost. But the benefit may well outweigh that cost in the minds of the faculty in that particular department...
I think that this is one of the more important science policy issues to discuss in todays academy. My views on the subject have evolved back and forth rapidly over the past two decades. In high school, all of my friends and family were conservatives, so I was most certainly against affirmative action. Then, in college I was fairly ambivalent at first, and then I felt forced into a position of pushing it away when my campus' Minority Engineering Program director try to include me in the group. 

The reasons I was uncomfortable about joining MEP were complicated. One is that I was used to not really being accepted as a Black person, primarily because I, "talk white." Then again, I didn't have the easiest time fitting in among white people generally, because I am, in fact, Black. The other major reason is that I chafed at the idea that people thought I needed help just because I was Black, and being part of the Physics-boy culture, I didn't want people to see me as weak. In the end, I wore the African colors over my graduation robe, but I never really felt like I was a part of MEP.

Then in grad school I benefitted from a diversity program called the Chancellor's Opportunity Fellowship program, which provided me with 4 years of tuition and stipend. Again, I was afraid of being seen as weak and in need of special help because of my skin color. But then again, I wasn't about to give back four years of grad school support. I decided the best way to deal was to excel in my studies, which put extra pressure on me compared to my white peers, and I also made an effort to give back. For six years I participated in the MEP Pre-freshman science training workshop, and for four years I worked for Upward Bound. If I was going to benefit from it, I was going to give back some of my time and effort to help others, too. 

Eventually, I started recognizing the differences in my grad school experience and those of others around me. To be sure, we shared many of the same struggles. But I had additional struggles due to a constant awareness of my differentness and the social contingencies attached to my skin. Nothing like overt or institutionalized racism. But certainly a large injury caused by lots of little cuts (the concepts of microaggression and unconscious bias). 

Today, I'm a staunch defender of affirmative action policies, in their many forms. I've seen and experienced the detrimental effects of having a monochromatic field of science. I recognize how our science suffers when only a fraction of the talent pool is in play. I also recognize that I pursue my science at the pleasure of a society who lends a portion of their tax dollars to my exploration of the Universe. Black folk, latinos and women pay taxes, too. As a result, they have every bit the same right to participate as do white males. And once they do, we'll start solving long-standing scientific problems by bringing innovative approaches to bear. We'll also improve the academic work environment in the process, which will improve everyone's science. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Technology gives a drummer a new arm, and then another!

Via, engineers at Georgia Tech give a paraplegic drummer an arm++:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday noon music break

TTNG with the oddly-named tune, Cat Fantastic. My favorite lyrics

Gather the right minds 

And Slowly through time 
All the right minds 
Ignoring patience that we lack 
Will inform the new minds 
And likely inclined all the new minds 
Will in turn replace the old 
They will change you easily 
Great ideals will be replaced

I got to see some of that ideals-replacing going on at the Astronomer's Facebook page last week...


Monday, March 10, 2014

Persuasive Arguments for Why Gender Parity Matters

Today's guest post is by Anne Madoff, a junior at Harvard University concentrating (majoring) in Computer Science. Anne is the founder of the Harvard Women in Computer Science, and she is currently learning about astronomy in my Astro 16: Introduction to Astronomy course. You can follow her class blog here

“On your class blogs you’ll publish posts five times a week, and at least one of those posts will be a free form post,” Professor Johnson explained. “Write about whatever interests you in astronomy, whatever you think is important.” After class, I was talking to another student—let’s call him Todd— about our assignment. I told Todd that I wanted to write at least a few posts showcasing work done by female astronomers. He seemed underwhelmed, so I reminded him that women are underrepresented in astronomy. “Sure…I guess I’ve just never really understood what the big deal about this is anyway,” Todd admitted.

In my experience, Todd’s attitude is an incredibly common one. My major at Harvard is Computer Science, one of the many STEM fields in which we’re far from achieving gender parity. In my freshman year I founded Harvard Women in Computer Science, a group that is dedicated to building a network of women in computing across schools and industries, creating awareness of and building opportunities for women in technical fields, and promoting the importance of a technical education for girls. Other students frequently ask me questions like Todd’s (what’s the big deal about the lack of women in STEM?) since they know that I do think gender parity in STEM is a big deal. I don’t think that any of these students – a few of them women – are necessarily opposed to having more women in STEM; they simply don’t understand why getting more women into STEM is something they should care about.
Image from
I thought that this might be a good opportunity to put down on paper (or rather the screen) some of the questions I commonly hear and some ideas about how to respond to them.

Why does having more female astronomers benefit the field?
More diverse teams do better. It’s that simple. An Ernst and Young report cites research that concludes: “Diverse groups of people tend to outperform homogeneous groups if both groups’ members have equal abilities. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is now research showing that under the right conditions, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen completely at random will likely outperform a homogeneous group of even the best problem solvers.” Consider an example from the corporate world: A 2007 Catalyst study found that companies with the highest representation of female board directors outperformed those with the least by 53% on measures of return on equity, 42% on measures of return on sales and 66% on measures of return on invested capital. This held up across industries from industrials to healthcare to information technology.

AAS Committee on the Status of Women - Image from
What if there are just fewer women who want to be astronomers?
It’s impossible to argue with 100% certainty that there isn’t a gap in interest between women and men, but there’s persuasive evidence to suggest that an interest gap isn’t the reason we have too few women in astronomy. Consider these figures: approximately 25% of astronomy PhDs are women, and about 25% of assistant and associate professors are women, but only 15% of tenured faculty are women (figures from the AAS Committee on the Status of Women). It seems unlikely that women who are associate or assistant professors simply “lose interest” before they have the chance to obtain tenure. In a 2000 New York Times article, Dr. C. Megan Urry from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore argued, “Getting a Ph.D. in a science like astronomy is very, very difficult. You have to be in love with it, and be really interested in it and dedicated to finish. The notion that after spending five, six, seven grinding years working like dog, and then saying, 'oh, that was fun, now I choose to do something else' -- well, I don't believe it.”

So you claim this isn’t an issue of interest, but doesn’t this problem being particular to STEM convince you it might be?
Nope! Some fields that now have gender parity (or close to it) were once in very similar situations. Consider the Catalyst graph below about women as a percentage of JD enrollment. The lack of female lawyers in 1972 was not a reflection on females’ biologically destined lack of interest; it was a reflection of a whole different slew of issues. I would argue the same is true of STEM fields, like astronomy, today.

Graph from - Link in text above
These are just a few examples of the many questions like this I’ve been asked, and I’m always thinking about ways to improve my replies and further educate myself on these issues. Know of a really persuasive stat I left out? I’d love to hear your suggestions about how best to respond to questions about women in STEM in the comments.